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Collaboration and Taking Sides at Minerva Theatre

Warren Pegg, The Argus, 15th July 2008

In 1931, the German composer Richard Strauss formed a creative partnership with a Jewish writer names Stephan Zweig. Two years later, the Nazis came to power and introduced a series of anti-Semitic laws. They soon began to pressurise Strauss into abandoning his Jewish collaborator. These events form the basis of Ronald Harwood’s new play Collaboration, which will receive its world premiere at Chichester tonight.

“Strauss defied them. He said it was silly and they shouldn’t order him about,” says Michael Pennington, who plays the composer. “But they pointed out to him he had a Jewish daughter-in-law and two Jewish grandchildren, so he was a little vulnerable himself and ought to see things their way.

“That is probably as far as I should take you because the consequences of Strauss dealing with this moral blackmail by the Nazis is what leads to the rest of the events of the play, which are pretty seismic for all.”

Collaboration is a companion piece to Taking Sides, which premiered at the Minerva in 1995 and is being revived this season. It is set a decade later during the American programme of  ‘denazi-fication’, an attempt to identify and punish those who had willingly collaborated with the Nazi regime.

Pennington played American interrogator Major Arnold in 1995 and this time has taken the part of the man Arnold interviews, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who claimed he used his privileged relationship with the Nazis to help Jewish musicians escape from Germany.

“It’s become something of a modern classic. I have a very vivid memory of the first production, in the early stages, I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to shake it off,” he admits. “But I’m glad to say that now, six weeks of rehearsals in, I’ve quite forgotten about it.”

Pennington first performed at Chichester in the late 1980s with the English Shakespeare Company, which he co-founded, and appeared there again last year in Sweet William, his solo show about the Bard’s life and work.

One wonders how this revered Shakespearean must feel about the image on his Wikipedia page - of him playing Moff Jerjerrod in Return of the Jedi. The film was re-released in 1997 and Pennington says he has received a weekly sackload of autograph requests ever since.

“You have to develop a sense of humour about these things. But it’s nice to be remembered at all, even if it is for slightly the wrong thing,” he laughs. “I’m afraid I have to say it was a very insignificant moment in my life. I didn’t know it was going to lead to this amount of secretarial work.”

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